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What the Gorilla Glue incident tells us about black hair products and reading labels

Hair care products on a store shelf

If you’ve been on the internet lately, you’ve probably heard about the Gorilla Glue situation. Or, rather you saw it.

A woman’s TikTok videos went viral after she applied Gorilla Glue, a heavy-duty adhesive, to her hair and couldn’t get it out after months of trying. Her ordeal to remove the glue was played out to the world through social media. She finally removed it through surgery. But, it's unclear what kind of permanent damage she may have suffered.  

While most would never dream of putting Gorilla Glue anywhere near their body, sometimes black women need to venture outside the hair care aisle to find products that work. Castor oil, olive oil, mayonnaise, and super glue are all used for hair styling purposes. Also, many products marketed exclusively for black women include chemical-based products like hair relaxers, texturizers, and bonding glues. So, some people might get confused about what’s safe and what’s not to put in their hair. 

People had a good laugh thinking about using glue in place of hairspray. But, even if you just use regular gel to make sure your hair is laid, it’s still a good reminder for all to double-check what’s in your bathroom cabinets. Even better, read the label before you buy.  

Research over the years has shown there are fewer non-toxic options in black hair products than there are in those marketed to the general public. Although understudied, there’s growing evidence that a high number of products marketed for black hair care contain known harmful chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive problems, hormone disruption, asthma, and other adverse health effects.  

There’s some government oversight from the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967. However, most ingredients in cosmetics don’t need FDA approval before hitting the market. Also, the FDA only has authority to investigate a product after concerns of non-compliance or violations are reported. This means consumers will already have been exposed to these toxic chemicals.  

Bottom line, it's up to you to protect yourself as a first point. You can do this by reading the ingredients. We’ve compiled a handy list of harmful chemicals commonly used in hair products to avoid. Use it as a reference the next time you go to the beauty supply. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start.  

Harmful ingredients commonly found in hair products

  • Parabens: These chemicals are found in shampoos, conditioners and hair lotions. It's known to cause skin and eye irritation and linked to endocrine disruption, developmental toxicity, and cancer. 
  • Sulfates: These chemicals are most frequently used in shampoos. It can cause skin irritation and is extremely drying to afro hair as it strips the hair of its natural oils.
  • Phthalates: These chemicals are widely used in scented products. They've also been linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer.
  • Resorcinol: This chemical is often used in permanent hair color. The chemical is also used for wood bonding and other commercial uses. It has been linked to disrupting the body's normal hormonal function. 
  • Calcium Hydroxide: This chemical is commonly used in no-lye relaxers. It can cause serious eye damage, skin irritation, and respiratory irritation.

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